My first race after my husband passed is so vivid. Pulling up to the waterfront, watching the Hudson River lap against the shoreline as my friend and his wife unhooked our bikes from the back of his car.

I can’t believe this is happening.

At day break 10 months and three days earlier I was at my husband’s bedside wiggling my hands underneath his body. Cancer stole him. His final breath escaped him and I was trying to absorb his warmth before he was taken away from me forever. I needed to feel him because time was precious. And when one area became cold I would try to find another warm spot. I held on to his warmth until they took him and that’s when the nightmare commenced. It would be the last morning with him.

I didn’t want this, I didn’t ask for this. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to me. How was I supposed to breathe without him? We had our lives to build. And now — and now I’m alone.

At the riverfront, the sky blazed with a magnificent glow as the sun woke up. The thick cool air twisted my stomach and my heart pounded in my throat like a metronome as time pulled closer to the start of the triathlon.

I set up my station alongside other experienced triathloners. They zipped up their wetsuits with their cycling gear underneath. They weren’t going to waste time between moving from swim to biking to running. If you cut down the time between changing, the better your overall time would be. I didn’t own a wetsuit, instead I wore bright purple yoga pants, a sports bra and then threw my swimsuit over the whole thing. It seemed practical to me. But I stood out as inexperienced, and I saw the side stares, shoulder shrugs and heard the whispers. But my friends were there for support and guidance. They believed in me.

But I didn’t know what I was doing.

Everyone could see I didn’t belong there. I was different. I had gone through months of hell preparing for this moment. My limbs twitched with excitement, my palms were sweaty like it was my first date. I was ready.

The race organizer corralled all the participants to the riverfront to jump in and get ready for the start. Some gingerly approached the water, others stretched their shoulders out before slipping in. But me, as if it were a hot humid summer day I leaped into the water. The girl in the bright purple yoga pants, the one without the wetsuit, the girl borrowing a bike that’s too big for her, the girl who doesn’t belong, the girl who’s the third wheel.

I was the girl who lost her way.

The river was colder than what I was anticipating. It felt like someone was pulling apart my ribcage. The sun was hanging low and the reflection on the river was blinding. What am I doing here? I started wading in the water to fight the current. The force of the current was pulling me downward as river water choked me. I tilted my head up, gasping for air, barely staying afloat. It was unforgiving and the current kept tugging at me. The safety rope was within an arms length and I reached for it to keep from drifting away. But my chest continued to feel like it was pulling apart, as if a larger force was filleting me like a fish to rip my guts out. I couldn’t hold on for much longer. Blow the fucking horn, start the goddamn race.

Because I was about to drown.

Like a steam whistle on a training passing by, the race began. I let go with a flurry of other swimmers scratching at my legs and their feet inches from my face. I had to get away from them, I needed to be on my own so I could stretch my stroke in open water. I wanted to be alone so I could find my stride. With every reach and kick, I was one stroke closer to getting through this mile swim before clipping in and lacing up for 31 more.

I did it, I finished and I survived.

On September 28th, 2014 in 2 hours and 58 minutes and 39 seconds, my entire life shifted. I felt unstoppable. I wasn’t just a widow, I became a triathlete.

And it wasn’t supposed to happen.

At least not to me.

I never wanted to be a triathlete.

The hardest situation is watching your entire life fall apart and not being able to stop it or slow it down. All you can do is watch it come undone and see your future engulfed in flames, your dreams vanish, and your purpose and worth disseminated.

And then it’s time to reassemble. Whether you want to or not.

A broken path reveals itself covered in bramble and shards of glass of a life you can no longer return to. It’s a path I didn’t want to travel down, but what other option is there?

Everything has changed. So now it was time to begin to believe I was as strong and brave as others perceive me to be. Even though I knew deep down I’ve been burned alive and was just a shell of a person I used to be. But somewhere between the grief there’s hiccups of pride. I found support in people I never expected and I began to feel a love that was missing. So I continued marching forward on this lonely journey, one mile at a time.

My husband George fought cancer, and as he was fighting he enjoyed life to the fullest. I felt him pushing me to become stronger than I could’ve ever imagined. And that summer when I was on the trails running, zipping along the streets on my bike, pulling myself through the water, I started learning how to appreciate life again. When my body ached, I thought of him and his courage. And to honor him I kept on fighting too.

I embraced the discomfort because how much further outside the comfort zone could I possible get? Through everything I’ve gone through I felt different. And I should— because I am different.

I’ve done 15 total races since September 2014 and this October 2017 I’ll be running my first marathon. I never thought I would be capable of this kind of exertion. But I had to lose everything first, and then rebuild. No physical pain could ever match my emotional trauma. And I accept that. I bear the W and I’ll continue forward and discover inner strength only George knows I have.

About 

Julia lost her husband in 2013 to a rare liver cancer when she was 28 years old. In the months and years afterwards, Julia continues to use her grief into a positive lifestyle change. She has been involved in NCAA Athletics for 14 years, and has continued to document her fitness, athletic and grief journey in her heartbreaking and honest blog The Unwanted W. Julia's journey has been featured in US Lacrosse Magazine, SoulCycle, and The Guardian. She currently writes for an online fitness and nutrition journal and works as a professional fitness instructor in Montgomery, AL. To contact Julia, please visit her website www.lacrossewidow.com or visit her Instagram for health tips at @flippingsteier or @uglygirl.fitness